Monday, September 7, 2009
In elementary school, I had a music teacher who was one of the least pleasant women I have ever encountered. She sat her students, who were about eight years old, in front of keyboards they weren't allowed to touch and singled out those who didn't sing in tune with the rest of us. After I left the school, she got in trouble for throwing a book at a kid. The only time I remember enjoying her class was the week of Halloween, when she let us listen to Halloween-themed music, including the Ghostbusters theme and "Thriller," by Michael Jackson. Very few of us kids knew who Michael Jackson was, but we liked listening to the song way better than practicing "When the Saints Go Marching In" on our recorders.
Our reaction to Jackson's music wasn't exactly unique. A lot of people liked his songs and liked watching him dance around singing them. It's been nearly three months since Jackson died of a doctor-administered drug overdose and here in Brooklyn, I still hear his music floating around from open car windows and block-party boomboxes. Dozens of stores are selling quickly-produced t-shirts and buttons with both young and old Michael Jacksons on them. Someone spray-painted his likeness onto a fence near my house. And nine days ago there was a birthday party for him in Prospect Park.
The birthday party is ironic for a couple of reasons. Number one, no one would have cared much about his birthday if he was still alive, and number two, if Jackson were alive he would have preferred to celebrate surrounded by twelve-year-olds and the skeletons of deformed people. But the party, along with the memorabilia market and the overloading of Twitter, prove that, strangely, a lot of people really like Michael Jackson.
I don't think it's strange that people like Jackson's music. That guy wrote some catchy stuff and had a great voice (not to mention a lot of talented musicians playing and Quincy Jones producing). But Jackson as a person is another story--he was essentially an eccentric millionaire who exhibited a bizarre combination of naivete and arrogance.
Consider his molestation trial: he showed up twenty minutes late for a hearing, mumbled some answers to the judge, and danced around in front of the court house for his fans. He eventually got acquitted, after which he denounced the media for causing all his problems (whenever someone blames the media, you know it's an exaggeration at best) and retreated even further from the public eye. Yet his fans said things like this: “He stands for so much, all the goodness in the world and innocence.” (That's one of his supporters from England, quoted in the above link.)
No, he doesn't stand for all the goodness and innocence in the world. If you are idolizing Jackson because of what he stands for, you need new idols. The man became famous for singing and dancing, then mostly stopped doing both in order to become an increasingly unhinged drug addict--the only difference between him and Amy Winehouse is that he was more successful before his life fell apart.
In fact, I'm not sure Jackson ever tried to stand for much in particular. Sure, he had some nice "racism is bad" and "let's all love one another" songs, but so does every pop artist. As a lyricist, he was a step above Prince but not exactly Dylan-esque. I mean, his most famous line is probably that weird "shamona!" yell, right? And when he became fabulously wealthy he spent his money on prescription drugs and a private amusement park. You tell me how to turn that into someone worth admiring.
To me, Jackson represents a fundamental truth of popular culture: if you are famous enough, a lot of people will like you pretty much no matter what you do. Popularity has become a virtue in and of itself. Or maybe it's impossible for people to like a work of art without getting attached to the artist. It's hard to read The Cantos by Ezra Pound and think of Pound as a Fascist, and it's hard to listen to Thriller and picture Jackson as anything other than a paragon of virtue.
But whatever Jackson was, he wasn't a paragon. He was pretty damned good at singing and dancing, but that's pretty much it. He made some music that practically everyone liked, but he didn't seem interested in recording new music anymore. I liked "Thriller," but I liked the Ghostbusters song too, and I'm pretty sure I won't be in mourning when the guy who recorded that dies.